During a prolific and celebrated career, the man who introduced the world to Ziggy Stardust created a vast library of imaginative and provocative imagery through his lyrics and personas. David Bowie's work inspired new generations of musicians and still offers powerful cultural significance years after it was originally published.
Bowie frequently used an unusual brainstorming practice to boost creativity and productivity called the cut-up technique. This method has its foundations in Dadaism and was adapted by Beat Generation luminaries Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs to create works of literature and art.
To apply the cut-up technique, an artist literally cuts or tears written and printed material into pieces, and then rearranges those pieces to create something new. Bowie most often used it to generate new ideas, describing the process as "igniting anything that might be in my imagination."
As a big proponent of personal brainstorming, I adopted the cut-up technique once I learned about it a few years ago. If it was good enough for Bowie (to say nothing of Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Thom Yorke and Iggy Pop, who also used it), then I suspected it could help me be more creative. I was absolutely correct.
I also put my own twist on the cut-up technique by taking advantage of something developmental psychologists call private speech, which is essentially speaking out loud to yourself. There is compelling science behind it, but the "out loud" part is important because it was recently correlated with high test scores among adolescents.
My hybrid version of Bowie's favored brainstorming technique takes just three simple steps and is guaranteed to generate new ideas:
1. Hit the record button and start talking.
There is tremendous power in speaking out loud to yourself. Thoughts will flow, ideas will develop and mental connections will emerge as you use your voice to express what is in your mind. Writing down supplemental notes may help produce thoughts, but speaking is the key-- you will always say more things out loud to yourself than you could possibly capture on paper. Recording the brainstorm for transcription is equally important, for future reference. Set up in a comfortable, private place where you won't be interrupted and let the words flow.
2. Cut the words into sections.
Transcribe your recording and begin cutting. Bowie cut his notes into phrases while Burroughs preferred slicing up big chunks of text, but whichever you prefer, grab some scissors and go to town. You never know what might lead to a great idea, so keep as much of the transcription as possible. Prior brainstorms are another great source of material to use for the cut-up technique.
3. Rearrange the pieces to make new connections.
This is the fun part. Some people like to put all of the cut sections into a fishbowl and pull them out one at a time. Others like to see everything at once by laying the scrambled-up pieces on a table. However you want to do it, rearrange frequently, putting new ideas together. Once again, record your thoughts and impressions, leveraging the impact of speaking out loud to yourself.
I encourage my employees to conduct personal brainstorms often in order to generate creative thinking, encourage development and open the door to inspiration. David Bowie's cut-up technique is a perfect vehicle for driving that creativity and gleaning new meaning from thoughts and ideas.
Following Bowie's creative example also does more than just benefit individuals in their eureka moments. Organizations can use the cut-up technique to drive the same benefits within their teams.
In a 1997 interview with the BBC, Bowie considered how the cut-up technique had helped him to generate new ideas, suggesting that "...if you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative."
The increased inspiration and productivity that comes from employees conducting regular personal and organizational brainstorms will trickle down through the enterprise, driving advancements and creating new products and solutions.
Every organization wants to create new synaptic connections, spark unique ideas and develop helpful solutions. Taking advantage of the cut-up technique through both personal and organizational brainstorms will produce these intelligent, startling and provocative results.